There’s a new “green” product label on the scene in the paper world which touts tissue and other products as produced by “Rapidly Renewable Fiber,” or RRF. The label looks green and sounds good, but does it offer meaningful assurance of social and environmental responsibility? This article takes a closer look at what the logo means when it appears on paper products and whether it meets the standard of a credible eco-label.

What is the purpose of eco-labels? A credible eco-label on a product can convey important information and provide purchasers with verification that they are choosing responsibly and even investing in leadership practices by the company they buy from. The International Standards Organization says that eco-labels have a common goal, which is, “…through communication of verifiable and accurate information that is not misleading on environmental aspects of products and services, to encourage the demand for and supply of those products and services that cause less stress on the environment, thereby stimulating the potential for market-driven continuous environmental improvement.”

When are they credible? Eco-labels need to be trusted by customers to be successful, but not all of them are deserving. Eco-labeling should rely on standards developedt by experts and applied in a transparent process. According to the Global Ecolabelling Network, “the most credible labels are awarded by an impartial third party for specific products or services that have been independently determined to meet transparent environmental leadership criteria, based on life-cycle considerations.” It is commonly recognized that currently there is confusion in the marketplace caused by the rapid proliferation of eco-labels, which challenges the usefulness of all labels. One effort to address this has been the US EPA’s ongoing process seeking to sort through the crowded marketplace, identify credible eco-labels, and provide guidance for federal government agencies.

What is RRF? “Rapidly Renewable” building materials and fiber are made from agricultural products that are typically harvested within a 10-year or shorter cycle, including fast growing plantation trees in the tropics. Individual companies have applied an RRF logo on products sourced from fiber from these intensively managed tree crops, which in certain conditions can be harvested in 6-8 years. An advertisement on a product that simply claims “Rapidly Renewable Fiber” fails to meet the standards of a credible eco-label, and is insufficient information on its own to assure the social and environmental integrity of a paper product.

Why does RRF fall short? First, it is far too blunt an instrument to be using for robustly assessing the environmental leadership of a raw material, a supplier or a product. It does not take into consideration any factors related to the forestry and the production of the product aside from its industrial efficiency. There is also no assurance that the land to grow the fiber was obtained with the free, prior and informed consent of the community. 

The case of the eco-label Green Seal and a 2018 update to its well respected GS-1 Sanitary Paper Standard is an excellent case illustrating the intersection of tree sourced Rapidly Renewable Fiber with a more rigorous and meaningful, third-party, eco-label.

At the start of this story, Green Seal recognized that a periodic review and update to its standards was in order, and that diversifying the sustainable fiber basket with increasingly viable alternative natural fibers and agricultural waste should be reviewed as a part of it. But then Solaris Papers showed up to insert themselves and their own very specific interests in the process. Solaris is a growing player in the commercial and service industry tissue sector. They advocated strongly that Rapidly Renewable Fiber from trees be included in the criteria and earn credits towards carrying the Green Seal label on the product.

Why is this important to Solaris? Under the scoring system of the existing Green Seal standard, Solaris’ current product offering could never earn the designation and carry the label. For example, they do not produce products with high-recycled content. And their parent company and pulp supplier, Asia Pulp and Paper, has been disassociated from the Forest Stewardship Council for its actions, and therefore it can not bring that certification to earn credit in the Green Seal system either. Their fiber comes from non-native acacia and eucalyptus monoculture plantations established on a legacy of tropical rainforest conversion, enormous carbon emissions, and a large number of social conflict with communities. And, yes, for now, it can be grown and harvested very, very, fast, reaching maturity in 6-8 years.       

What happened next after Solaris Paper’s intrusion? Green Seal floated the proposal to including rapidly renewable fiber, including trees, in a formal draft of a revised GS-1 sanitary paper standard. And alarm bells went off.

A broad swath of conservation organizations (including the Environmental Paper Network), responded to the public comment opportunity with detailed objections and case studies. And it was not just environmental organizations speaking out, but also representatives of the forest and paper industry who had invested in more robust forestry certification standards, which would be devalued by the inclusion of rapidly renewable fiber as an alternative. Similarly, it would reduce demand for recycled fiber products at a time when collected paper is being incinerated and landfilled and municipal recycling systems need market support.  

Kudos to Green Seal, who reviewed the extensive information that was provided, consulted with its team of experts, and made a determination that RRF should NOT be included in the Green Seal sanitary paper standard. Furthermore, in a credit to Green Seal’s integrity, they announced they would be reviewing their process for updating their standards and for how they choose partners across the whole organization. The process ensured that Green Seal label on sanitary paper products retained the goal of an eco-label: trust.  

The EPN’s Paper Steps identifies environmental attributes that a broad community of leading environmental organizations has endorsed. These include guiding criteria and a hierarchy for leadership paper products. It includes several types of responsible fiber inputs, but it does not include RRF as a meaningful environmental attribute, risk mitigation measure or eco-label for the reasons outlined above. The Paper Steps criteria assist in identifying leadership products for designation on Canopy’s EcoPaper Database, but does not certify products or serve as an on-product label.

Always remember to look carefully when environmental claims are made and verify them with trusted, independent sources to determine if you can trust an eco-label. For further questions regarding RRF, paper product eco-labeling, or the resources included in this article, contact the Environmental Paper Network here.